Rejection, Discouragement, and How a Few Loyal Readers Can Save an Author

Stevens_The_LetterBeing discouraged is part and parcel of a working writer’s life. Negative reviews, ditto. Some of us are naturally more thick-skinned about them than others, and most of us develop coping strategies over the years. This is where networking with other writers can be very helpful.  We say things like:

  • If you’re not accumulating rejection slips, you’re not doing your job (taking risks, “pushing the envelope”).
  • Just file the slip (or email) and send the story out
  • Remember how many times A Wrinkle in Time was rejected.
  • Editors are human, too; they have bad days, and it’s no one’s fault if your hero has the same name as their ex.
  • Hey, I’m making progress from a form rejection to a personal note and invitation to submit again!

Even after many professional sales, a rejection can sting. The sting doesn’t last as long as it might when we were first starting out, and we have tools (see above) and lots of writerly commiseration to help us. We know from experience that the sting will pass; we have acquired the habit of immediately diving back into the next project, so that we always have something fresh  and exciting in the pipeline.

Then there are the situations when a story or book is sold and the publisher goes out of business. The editor gets fired. I know authors this has happened to more than once. We find ourselves wondering if we killed the magazine. We didn’t, but that laughter overlays the secret and utterly illogical fear that our writing careers are somehow jinxed. Then we sell something else and there are no thunderbolts from above. We carry on.

Reviews, ah reviews, and in this category I include feedback from critique groups and beta readers. So much has already been said about the power of a caustic review or harsh feedback of a work in progress that I won’t belabor the point here. Suffice it to say that the natural human desire for praise (for our creative “children”) leaves us vulnerable to interpreting criticism of the work with condemnation of ourselves. Or, having torn off our emotional armor to write from the heart, we’ve also ripped off any defenses against sarcasm, etc. I’m among those who, having received scathing feedback, went home, and cried. I never considered giving up (although on more than one occasion, I contemplated getting even and thankfully resisted the temptation). But some writers have. 

Negative feedback, if consistent and prolonged, can have a devastating effect on a writer’s self-confidence and ability to work. Support and encouragement from our fellow writers can be our greatest asset in setting aside the nasty things people have written about our stories. A hiatus from reading reviews is highly recommended.

Another form of discouragement arises when a novel gets published, gorgeous cover and all, and sales are abysmal. Sometimes this means you’re dead at that publisher, but other times they’ll take a longer view and be patient. Or they might want you to change your byline or genre to get a fresh start, so the poor sales figures don’t haunt new releases.

Sooner or later, this will happen to most of us. We reach for the support and tools that have helped us through rejection letters, bad reviews, and writer’s block. If it’s a single book or a book now and again, we can usually get through the disappointment. But when it happens repeatedly, it can be even more catastrophic than those early rejections. We’ve enjoyed a period of success and self-confidence. We’ve sold a book or twelve. We know how to do this. Our fans love us. We’re professionals. And then our next book flops. And the one after that. And we change our names and write something different. And the same thing happens. Our publisher dumps us. Maybe our agent dumps us. It would be a miracle if we did not feel discouraged.

This has happened to writers I know. Some of them have kept writing, and eventually hit their stride and connected with an enthusiastic readership again. Others gave up.

It’s happened to me, too. I’ve written books that my editor loved and that those few readers who bought adored and wrote glowing reviews about…and that simply did not sell worth beans. Some days I’m sure I’ll never amount to anything, I can’t write my way out of a wet paper bag, and what’s the use? Other days, I chalk it all up to practice. Sometimes I admit I have no idea why some books sell like wildfire and other, equally or more wonderful, fizzle. I tell myself I’m paying my dues as a professional, no matter how obnoxious and painful these particular dues are.

Then I remind myself of the question: If your work would never be published, would you still write? And my answer is yes. Because these stories are in my heart, and because when the words flow, there’s nothing like that creative high. Maybe it’s just the luck of the draw that some folks do want to read what I write. I treasure those few readers who have taken the time to let me know how much my work has meant to them. A readership of one (myself) is enough; a readership of that small community is the whipped cream and chocolate sprinkles and cherry on top.

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Rejection, Discouragement, and How a Few Loyal Readers Can Save an Author — 10 Comments

  1. And there are forces that are beyond us. An editor rejects your first-alien-encounter ms. It may not have anything to do with you; they may have just accepted a trilogy from J.K. Rowling or Stephen King about first alien encounter. A shipload of Grays just beamed down onto the White House lawn and your novel is suddenly no longer SF but alternate history fantasy on a rather tired subject.

  2. Exactly. I once got a rejection letter that said, “We loved your story about octopus and dysfunctional mothers, but we just bought one about squid and dysfunctional mothers from Hot New Author.” I kid you not.

  3. Writing is dreadfully lonely when you’re in the midlist. You get next to no feedback. You wonder if anyone actually =read= your book. Discouragement becomes an old pair of jeans you wear three or four days a week.

    • Which is why so many writers become prey to mental issues. Depression is popular, but I prefer megalomania. Someday they shall all cringe before me! Oh wait, that’s GIRL GENIUS…

  4. One of the things I love about epublishing in general and BVC in particular is that I’m much less at the mercy of sales figures, editors, and reviewers. I can follow my delight, which is really where the reward lies.

  5. Serial pod cast fiction is really really really the hot thing now, and everybody can do it. It seems that audiences just can’t get enough content for their ear budding devices. Which is encouraging!

  6. Wow, you just walked into my world right now. And yes, knowing it’s likely I’ll never be published, I still write – and largely for that creative high you mention. But it’s hard, working in a vacuum. You start to wonder if it’s more efficient just to keep everything in your own head, since your audience is really only your own head anyway.